The Sanctity of our Dreams

“When I first started this piece almost a year ago, Roe v. Wade was the furthest thing from my mind and the experience of Central Park West had not yet appeared on my radar. Now, looking at the sanctity of life through the lens of our heartfelt dreams makes this reflection all the more poignant.”

Many months ago, a Facebook friend posted a question, “At what age do you tell your child to get a job and not follow their dreams?” The question made me both sad for the poster and for the prospect altogether. Shortly after I had read this question, I started to craft a narrative about it, but was halted by several worthy distractions. Now that my writing motor has restarted. . I think. . I felt it time to come back to it.

When I first started drafting my thoughts on this, a few events unfolded that lent more meat to my reflections. Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic dream ground to a halt as she was both punished and scrutinized for trying to manage the grief of her mother’s death by smoking weed. Then, my best friend of 40+ years was featured on Elle.com–an inspiring piece that left me digging deeper into the lost pursuit of my own dreams. A visit to the Culinary Institute of America put my son’s academic and professional dreams front and center. Finally, under the Olympic spotlight, Simone Biles wrestled with the challenges of the “twisties” while carrying the weight of the US Olympic team’s legacy on her shoulders.

All of these events led me to ponder the question, “Who really has agency over our dreams?”

On its surface, it should be a simple question to answer. But the cult of celebrity, the capitalist pressure of monetary success and the very real social and political constraints on our bodies and minds makes the answer not quite so simple.

This decision is about so much more than whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This decision for both woman and child is about the ownership of the trajectory of one’s life, full stop.

I’ll stay away from too much commentary about Sha’Carri Richardson and Simone Biles. What I will offer is that I found it fascinating and tragic that these two women were so heavily scrutinized for tending to their own physical and emotional needs. Their means of self-care are irrelevant. Their critics broadcast the message that they were not entitled to ownership of their own bodies, health, grief or dreams. It’s impossible to confirm whether or not they would have been spared such judgment if they were of a different hue. However, what they experienced did feel like a remnant from a time when Black women’s bodies were owned by masters, their wives, and a brutal economic system in which they were literally the drivers of production. The parallel should make us at least uncomfortable.

And now we are staring down the looming overturn of Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed women to take control of their bodies, their family planning and in turn, the manifestation of their professional and personal dreams. My best friend of 40+ years, Alexis McGill Johnson, is the president of Planned Parenthood Foundation and kicked ass in a brilliant interview on The Daily Show where she stated matter-of-factly that “Most people do not want a politician in their decision.” This decision is about so much more than whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This decision for both woman and child is about the ownership of the trajectory of one’s life, full stop.

Lucky for me, I have had access to Alexis’s inspiring brilliance since I was 8 years old. The first time I ever saw her, she was doing cartwheels on our elementary school stage in a play. Donning afro puffs and fearlessness in her gymnastic feat, I was drawn to her confidence and the fact that she was a Black girl like me. Decades later, I am honored to have had a front row seat to her ascension as an important voice of advocacy and activism in the fight for social justice.

Last July, Alexis was featured on Elle.com and there was a particular part of the interview that stuck out to me.

When McGill Johnson was in high school, Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was a national security advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, “was on TV every day, talking about Gorbachev, and the fall of the Soviet Union.” She was obsessed, watching Rice every chance she got and one of her mentors, an uncle-like figure, told her, “You know, that could be you. You’re really good at arguing. You’re really good at making a case. And I really see you being like her.”

Alexis McGill Johnson Is Making Her Mark on Planned Parenthood, Elle.com, July 2021

As besties in high school, we were generally preoccupied with boys and passing notes in class so I had little knowledge of her obsession with Condoleeza Rice or the way in which it inspired her. I knew Alexis could argue–boy, can she argue, but we seldom didn’t see the same side of an issue. As I read these words, I was catapulted back to our high school years and had to ask myself, What was the object of my obsession back then? Watching Alexis’s actualization of this core part of herself in such an important and impactful context, I felt convicted in my own heart that I had not lived up to the example that had been in front of me most of my life.

My Love of the Stage

In high school, the object of my obsession was the stage, acting in dramas and musicals every year with the ambition of pursuing the life when I grew up. My ambitions were thwarted by a waning confidence within the reality of theatrical politics, and a less than supportive family unit. Over time, I never really let myself think about it until a friend’s middle-aged theatrical second wind inspired me to give it go.

So. . . when I saw the audition call for Central Park West, I became pretty excited. . .and then ambivalent. The old voices of doubt started in my head, especially as I contemplated the piece’s author, Woody Allen. Notorious for the lack of diversity in his films, Woody Allen’s justification is that he “always casts the person who fits the part most believably in my mind’s eye” and that affirmative action “does not work” in film. Sigh. Surely, it was unlikely that I would be cast in this play even if Woody Allen was not actually at the helm.

I was mistaken.

It is a reminder that when we acquiesce our childhood dreams to parents or adults who neglect to nurture and encourage us, a restorative act of grace can come from a stranger down the road when we least expect it.

I was, in fact, cast to play the lead, Phyllis, a brilliant Upper West Side psychoanalyst with an attractive, yet morally bankrupt husband and a questionable group of friends. . .I don’t want to give too much away. In the US, there would have been plenty of middle-aged white New York women who could have played this part. No director would have had to think outside the box on this one. But here, in an European context, our Swedish director had a much more expanded vision of the part and was convinced, after a deserving audition, that this role was mine.

I remember the moment when I read the email letting me know I got the part. Gratitude, surprise, a little bit of terror when I realized that I would be taking to the stage again after decades. And to be cast in the lead– trusted with the responsibility of holding the story and the energy, an honor that had eluded me in high school–felt almost redemptive. It is a reminder that when we acquiesce our childhood dreams to parents or adults who neglect to nurture and encourage us, a restorative act of grace can come from a stranger down the road when we least expect it.

Playing Phyllis, being Phyllis, was a thrill of a lifetime. Performing on a stage in the very town outside of Paris where Josephine Baker made her home added a surrealism and anointing to the experience. As a writer, I savored all the ways I could play with the text and the role pushed me to stay grounded in my body in a powerful way, something I always struggle with as a part of healing trauma. My whole self was brought to the task and it was life in a state of pure bliss.

The Sanctity of Life

A couple of weeks before the play’s opening night, I was in New York City celebrating my 50th birthday with my beloved friends and family. I took Emmanuel, my son, for lunch one day and he asked me how the play was going. I was touched by his curiosity and support, especially as he was on the precipice of officially pursuing his own dream of becoming a chef. In that moment, I embraced the opportunity to look my son in the face and authentically share with him the meaning of following one’s bliss. The moment was pregnant with urgency.

I told Emmanuel that the play was going well, but the experience was something deeper than that. I explained how I couldn’t wait for rehearsals to begin each day and whenever we were rehearsing, I never wanted the time to end. I told him how I read the script at least two times a day without complaint and that I could talk for hours with our director and my fellow actors about what we were creating together. I looked at Emmanuel with all of the gravity that parenting sometimes demands and told him that this is what it means to follow your bliss and that if being in the kitchen and cooking gives him that, then he is destined to be a chef.

When I first started this piece almost a year ago, Roe v. Wade was the furthest thing from my mind and the experience of Central Park West had not yet appeared on my radar. Now, pondering the sanctity of life through the lens of our heartfelt dreams makes this reflection all the more poignant.

We choose to nurture others or we choose to shame them. We choose to support or we choose to discourage. We choose to open our minds to what is possible or we choose to close them.

You know, people who want to have children often do it with the blurriest of intentions–to save a failing relationship, to fill some egoic need or emotional void, or because it’s the next step in the commitment journey. When we don’t examine these intentions closely or when the reality does not meet the expectation, the consequences can be life-changing for those very children. So, why would a society force the road of parenthood on those who would not have chosen it otherwise?

What is becoming clear to me is that we are all in possession of each other’s dreams. The particular American notion of individual grit and perseverance is nonsense. Our enduring connections to each other in relationship and in life- our brief but consequential interactions matter–parent to child; bestie to bestie; politician to constituent. The beauty of this idea is that choice sits at the very heart of it. We choose to nurture others or we choose to shame them. We choose to support or we choose to discourage. We choose to open our minds to what is possible or we choose to close them.

When we encourage others to make the choices that are aligned with who they really are, with their dreams for the future, no matter what they may include, we are, in fact, pro-life.

Image credit: Toni Carmine Salerno

Digging in the Dirt

“Digging in the dirt
Stay with me, I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt”–Peter Gabriel

Since I last posted, I have started four different blog posts–The Urgency of our Dreams, Slaying the Narcissist, On Turning 50, and On Love and War. In each of them, I have gotten hundreds of words into my thoughts. I was satisfied with the flow of my perspectives and narration. But, in each case, I found myself unable to land the plane, so to speak. Something inside me just hasn’t been able to get the piece across the finish line, until now.

I dropped down into my heart to find the truth of my block and I realized that the issue was about authenticity. I’ve always used my writing as a medium to reflect deeply on issues that would resonate with and encourage more thoughtfulness in others. Often to my detriment, I live in my head and the strength of my mind has been a gift and a crutch in life. It has protected me in trying moments–more on that later–and it has been an unintentional shield against true vulnerability. I realize that my writing is demanding more from me than the ability to compel with words.

My friend, Andrew, likened writing to a relationship, citing all of the dynamics that come with being in one. The analogy landed hard on me for a few reasons. One, it made perfect sense and eased some of my frustration around being so stalled. But it also suggested that writing demands intimacy, presence, and endurance; all of which I have struggled to secure in my own relationships. And writing has to be seen as a safe place to be one’s complete self.

*****

“Our society is unkind to women of a certain age who are unattached. There are always the looming questions-“What is wrong with her? Why can’t she keep a man?”

I don’t write much about my romantic relationships. I penned a memoir about the journey that was my relationship with Emmanuel’s father, but that’s just sitting on my computer expiring in its relevance. Having just turned 50, I do feel some shame in still being single. Our society is unkind to women of a certain age who are unattached. There are always the looming questions of “What is wrong with her? Why can’t she keep a man?” As a Black woman, the historical tropes of us being hypersexual-merely good for a f**k, angry, or predestined for single parenthood hang over me like a shadow.

So, in the light of day, I don’t expose the truth of my sadness and the loneliness I feel climbing into bed each night flanked on my right by only a cat. I have spent years focused on healing many parts of myself and my life. Wounds that are not my fault, but my soul’s chosen journey nonetheless. Despite all of the work I have done, I still come up wanting and so I reserve my frustration for my most intimate confidants while sharing the joy and gratitude that I am genuinely reaching for every day with the rest of the world.

I decided to write about this now because some things I have experienced recently have reminded me of how the need for healing lingers on and on and perhaps by writing it down, by bringing into the light, I can transform it and release it because I’ve had enough of getting in my own way and maybe I can help someone else in the process.

So, what is wrong with me?

I asked myself this question in 2009. My whole body felt on edge as I was actively processing a 14-year codependent/narcissistic dance with Emmanuel’s father, who had just had kid with another woman. I felt a persistent pain in my lower back and I was in a constant state of fight or flight. I remember one afternoon laying in the back seat of my parked car crying uncontrollably and asking God or the Universe or whatever was out there, “What is wrong with me?”

What followed was an arduous journey of unraveling the memory of a childhood sexual trauma, followed by confronting years of codependent behaviors, and capped off with understanding how my mother’s own childhood wounding put her on the narcissism spectrum. All of this has been the perfect shitstorm for my relationship challenges. And just when I think I have turned a corner or healed all the stuff, little remnants appear that demand renewed attention.

Healing trauma is tricky business, especially one that is deeply embedded in the brain. Our brains are extraordinary instruments, shutting down in moments when we do not have the cognitive ability to process what is happening to us. This is the physiological protection that occurs in children to help us survive. But, then the brain is forever changed and engages in this dissociative habit well beyond the traumatic event. I learned that only PTSD therapies can begin to unlock the brain and rewire it to release the internalized memory of shame and blame that is born out of trauma. So I immersed myself in EMDR*–eye movement desensitization and reprocessing–to begin the journey back to myself.

Working through codependency is a discipline that never lets up. Throughout the process, I have learned that codependency and narcissism are pathologies that feed one another. The narcissist loves the codependent because of our obsessive people-pleasing and the codependent can’t resist the narcissist as we believe we have to always be “doing” to deserve love. A narcissist is keen on making their target do and do and do until they are satisfied without ever giving back the love in kind. Reaching back into my past, reconnecting with what I perceived were “lost loves”, I discovered those glimmers of narcissism that had been hidden from me. I even began to look at friendships differently, understanding the who and the why of what I had attracted into my life for so long.

And then there’s my mother. Many years ago, after observing me confide in my father about some girl-in-her-twenties stuff, my mother was hurt that I didn’t come to her, admitting her long-held jealousy of my father’s admiration of me growing up. It was a strange confession, but it gave me a clearer lens through which to look at her cruelty and criticism towards me as an adolescent. We’ve come a long way, but sometimes she still can’t fight the urge to diminish me, especially if she’s not getting the attention that she wants. So, I’ve learned to step back and observe her behavior or to simply walk away. Emmanuel, my son, has been my best teacher in this regard as he doesn’t seem to internalize anyone else’s behaviors. The kid has emotional boundaries of steel and is still as loving as can be. Thank God for him.

“Energetically and intuitively, I feel like I am reclaiming all that was lost.”

I have been singularly obsessed with my healing for well over a decade now. The rage** that used to reside in me–the rage of a little girl who had been violated and unprotected–it has been transformed into love and acceptance and joy. I feel and experience so much love from people in my life. Friends, near and far, who just want to be around me in the most authentic and pure way. It is said that trauma changes who you are meant to become. Energetically and intuitively, I feel like I am reclaiming all that was lost.

But, I forgot to tell myself that I was safe.

I made a beautiful connection with someone. It was unexpected for me and a bit of a slow burn. Then something clicked between us and the energy became undeniable. I trusted him. He gave me no reason not to. He was never withholding in his appreciation of me and his gaze was always filled with so much intention. And I was often moved by the little flash of insecurity he would get over my benign interactions with other men–not jealousy, just an vulnerable curiosity.

We finally had a moment where we had the freedom to face this connection, unpack the energy that had been growing between us. But then, almost on autopilot, my dissociative trauma brain kicked in and I completely shut down. I found myself saying things, protective comments that killed the moment. Of course, I didn’t know this was what was happening at the time. It was only the next day that could I look back and see myself in that moment, trying to get him to see that the emotions were triggering a buried fear. I wish I had reminded myself that I was safe.

The sad irony about trauma-related dissociation is that what brings someone back from it is physical touch. Touch grounds us back to the present moment and diffuses the fight-flight-freeze response in the brain. Yet for those witnessing this reaction, it can feel like rejection or indifference and so their instinct is to pull away. Looking back as if watching a movie reel in my head, I recall seeing the veil of disappointment fall over this beautiful man’s face as I seemed to vanish. It was only when we hugged goodbye that I came back, and by then, it was too late. I had hurt someone who meant so much to me. Of course, the recovering codependent in me tried to fix it in the days and weeks to follow because that’s what we do, but I just made more of a mess.

Healing Trauma is Hard

I lost a high school friend of mine recently. She died suddenly from medical issues connected to her lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction. Her name was Tara, too and we were pretty inseparable in high school. She was Big Tara and I was little Tara. Tara was a rock star in our town–her athletics, her academics, her heart. She could have her picture in the local paper pulling off a brilliant lay up and not let it phase her at all. At the same time, I remember her drinking when we were teenagers and my desperate attempt to get her to deal with it, but to no avail. It broke my heart to find out that she struggled until the end. A beautiful life cut short and a loss that has sent shockwaves through my entire high school class.

One can’t help but wonder if Tara was running from her own trauma. It’s something we will never know for sure, but to live a life gripped by the disease of addiction certainly suggests it. We place judgment on those who suffer from addiction without considering what their dependence is masking or empathizing with how difficult it is to confront those haunting wounds in the first place. Facing our traumas-digging in the dirt- might mean realizing we’re in a relationship that doesn’t serve us. Or taking responsibility for pain we have inflicted on others. It could also mean accepting that we’ve spent half our lives in service to work that neither feeds or inspires us. It’s so much easier to drink or smoke our way out of the presence of those things than to sit fully in our pain, alone.

But, we’re here to help each other through it.

“Perhaps we’re supposed to see each other, not for the fulfillment of our longings or needs, but for the facilitation of our healing, consciously or not. And then when that healing has happened, we can be free together or sometimes apart.”

I remember when I unearthed the memory of my own trauma. It was not a linear process. It was fragmented and strange and I remember the panic that set in when the clarity came. I called my friend, Sarah, who happened to be a therapist and I met with her to explain what I was going through. My agitation and fear were tangible and she zeroed in on the most important thing about what I was sharing. She said, “You’re afraid that I don’t believe you. I believe you.” She saw me and knew exactly what I needed to survive that moment. It was a stunning gesture of pure grace.

Our society teaches us that our relationships are supposed to be transactional, especially the romantic ones. Men are socialized to earn money and power to provide, to protect, and to get their sexual needs met. The latter creating such complicated, demeaning, and sometimes dangerous sexual dynamics between men and women. Women are expected to twist ourselves into whatever form, persona, and demeanor it takes to get the ring, the house, and the kids, who are then expected to fulfill all of our unmet emotional needs under the guise of motherhood and when they fail to do so, we saddle them with our disappointment and judgment. We buy into these illusions that we belong to and possess one another without any regard for healing or becoming who we are really meant to be in the process.

Perhaps we’re supposed to see each other, not for the fulfillment of our longings or needs, but for the facilitation of our healing, consciously or not. And then when that healing has happened, we can be free together or sometimes apart. I know I never would have healed this trauma from my past had it not been for the painful experiences I had with Emmanuel’s father and also, the best thing for Emmanuel is that his father and I were never together. That was never the purpose of our “love.”

It was a much bigger vision of love than I could have imagined.

Despite all my mess, I am a believer that our souls choose our journeys. The lessons from my healing about love, forgiveness, and vulnerability are helping me to break the generational cycles that have existed in my own family. I have so much hope for Emmanuel. That he will be able to give and receive love and reach for his passions with humility, but without fear. Just talking with him openly about my own struggles, or the often screwed up societal expectations in life and love is a step.

In the meantime, I hope that someday, someone will really see me. See the light and joy in my eyes and the fight in my heart. He will see that I am whole, but always seeking to become more of myself. And in the moments when I get that faraway look in my eyes and I seem to disappear, he will take my hand and tell me that I’m safe. And he will stay.

*To learn more about EMDR, go to https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

**To learn more about rage, how it shows up, and how to heal it, I highly recommend Healing Rage by Ruth King. It’s a brilliant book about the disguises of rage and how we can use them and transform them.

We Really Only Have Each Other

It has been months since I’ve written a blog post. Reflecting on my “writer’s block”,  I realized the winter months delivered much unexpected trauma no thanks to the former Commander-in-Chief. Further distracted by my anger over the mounting COVID cases and deaths due to the selfish travels of indifferent Americans and the swift onset of mass shootings as spring welcomed eased restrictions, these persistent upheavals gave rise to an ambivalence about my own purpose in the world.

It’s been difficult getting inspired to write as I’m plagued by the questions of “Why am I doing this?” , “What is it all for?” I can’t seem to remain grounded in my identity as a writer because I know it requires a certain focused resistance to the turbulence of the outside world, and an acute sensitivity to it at the same time. It calls for an internal discipline that pushes against the excuses I often narrate to myself on any given day–a commitment to a calling that tests and nags me all at once.

Then there is the looming expectation of success. To be a writer–an artist–is to constantly seek the external validation that gives our work legitimacy. Any attempt to be published catapults writers into this strange vicious circle of being told that we will be published when we have a a platform of readers, but then wondering how do we build a platform of readers if we are never published? The modern devices of social media force us to be “branded”–pushing our words into contrived notions of who we should be in order to make a pitch. Not very inspiring.

So, what brought me back to the page?

It was the simplest of statements from a cherished friend from my past.

“You never get up from writing and say, well that was a waste of time.”

In that instant, I felt both convicted and seen. His words took my breath away.

*****

“. . I often worried that post-pandemic, we humans wouldn’t learn the lessons and would resume our blind pursuit of things, power, titles, and attention, with little to no reverence for what was lost this past year.”

This conversation with this particular friend, Andrew, was probably one of the great surprises of the Zoom call life that has become commonplace in our pandemic reality. I have had several reconnections with former colleagues, classmates, and members of other tribes over the past year. Commiserating over the weight and incredulity of the pandemic, many of those calls were borne from a subtle desperation in such trying times, grasping for a moment to step “outside” of the walls that were locking us all in.

The two hours I spent zooming with Andrew landed markedly different. While witnessing a year and a half of distance from those we love the most, I often worried that post-pandemic, we humans wouldn’t learn the lessons and would resume our blind pursuit of things, power, titles, and attention, with little to no reverence for what was lost this past year. I have yet to hand down a verdict on how we’re doing–the outlook is mixed–but I am grateful for those 120 minutes that were a beautiful reminder of the inspired nature and magic of human connection no matter distance or time.

Let me set the stage. Andrew and I first met in 7th grade at Frelinghuysen Middle School. Probably an unlikely pair to share a bond, we managed to suffer our way through years of French classes together into high school, although I think I abandoned him in AP French Lit our senior year. Why unlikely? If we were cast in a John Hughes flick of our era, Andrew would be the quintessential leading man–tall, good-looking, athletic, smart, and a ridiculously nice guy–a Molly Ringwald crush, for sure.

I, on the other hand, would be the goofy, theatre and chorus nerd with little to no lines, chatting in the background of some cafeteria scene. I was the girl who accidently caught her hair on fire in chemistry class. I was awkwardly all over the place before being awkward was a thing. I could have been Issa Rae’s role model.

Fast forward about 32 years since our last conversation and there we were face to face on Zoom. The details of how we arrived at that moment are probably less important–Facebook friends, career stuff, yada, yada, yada. As we peeled back the layers of our lives, we ended at a place of sincere vulnerability, both contemplating our identities as writers-mine, new and unformed, his, disciplined and yet a bit more measured.

But it wasn’t just the surprise of a common bond of writing that touched me. It was this unspoken agreement to hold space organically and authentically for whatever came up. Perhaps that could be credited to the crazy mix of our history as Morristown Gen Xers, our careers as consultant and coach, and the wear and tear of a global pandemic, social unrest, and an attempted coup. Certainly, our collective need for thoughtful and healing human connection cannot be understated. By whatever means it evolved, it was just refreshing to not have any airs, defenses, or postures that too often define human interactions in this day and age.

When I got off the call, not only did I finally feel a spark to write again, but I allowed myself a moment of playful nostalgia about my friendship with Andrew. The summer after our 8th grade year, we were both part of a motley crew of 13 middle school students on a whirlwind two-week tour around Europe. Hours spent on our own full-size charter bus, we galivanted through Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and France with just two chaperones, often left to our own devices between sightseeing and meals. It’s a wonder we all survived that adventure.

“. .there really is nothing more meaningful than being fully present to someone’s else’s humanity.”

In typical adolescent fashion, the girls on the trip tended to hang with the girls, the boys with the boys, simply maintaining the natural order of things. But, at one point, my inner tomboy grew weary of all that girl energy and I parked myself in a seat on the bus next to Andrew for a chat. I don’t recall whether it was by invitation or intrusion, but I do remember just being able to relax, bantering about whatever teenage concerns were on deck at the moment.

Melding my reflections about our middle-aged reconnection with the memories of the carefree leisure of our youth, it’s so easy to see that there really is nothing more meaningful than being fully present to someone else’s humanity.

And to do so is a choice.

*****

Of course, my deduction is neither profound nor unique, but how many of us can honestly say that we live in this space, whether with long lost friends or our nearest and dearest? What does it mean and what does it take to consciously create safe spaces of vulnerability for and with others? I could certainly do better, especially with those who love me the most. It’s helpful to have this reminder as my reunion with my mother and son draws closer.

Collectively, we’re not well trained for this. If we were, it would be impossible to conceive of separating children from their families, refusing to comply to basic safety measures that would protect the health and lives of others, or constructing laws and systems that persistently deny the rights and humanity of others. We take something that should be so natural and gentle–our capacity to connect–and we distort it to what end?

The isolation and loss from the pandemic have been unmatched in their brutality on our psyches and I keep hoping that we will come back kinder and more conscious to our genuine need for each other. Setting aside the egoic tendencies to dominate or best one another so that we can be of service to the moment.

I never would have imagined that 30+ years of time and distance from a school friend would deliver one of the most fulfilling conversations of the year. But, there we were.

And here we all are, beckoned to the highest calling of merely being present to and for one another.

The Air of Representation

“In Soul, Pixar is asking to have it both ways–pat us on the back for this beautifully crafted, non-stereotypical depiction of a Black man, but forget that the character who serves as his antagonist is a white woman.”

The opening cacophony of instruments lured me in immediately as I was reminded of Emmanuel’s early middle school days learning to play the trombone. When the energetic and encouraging music teacher, Joe, took to his piano, I was further catapulted to the moments when I was enchanted by Emmanuel’s father, Raliegh, and his own extraordinary skills on keys. A lovesick girl in my twenties, I followed him around the New York music scene through late-night gigs and sleepy cab rides back to Brooklyn.

Soon after, Soul, transported me to the New York City streets that I hold near to my heart as a proud native–the impeccable detail given to the West Village jazz club, the awning of the Jamaican food restaurant, even one of the seamstresses resembled my own mother, bent over her sewing machine with a fierce bob and reading glasses delicately balanced on her nose. I was so immersed in the Blackness of it all that it came as such a shock when suddenly, Joe, our delightful protagonist, perished down a manhole.

“That felt like a clever manipulation to serve as a pre-emptive strike to both justify and diffuse the character’s identity.”

I don’t want to rehash every plot detail of the movie from this point. I was definitely all in, particularly excited by the introduction of a cat because I love a cat under any circumstance.

Following the story from climax to resolution, I enjoyed the film’s bold exploration of the thin veil that exists between our 3-dimensional world and the spiritual realm. It’s an enduring comfort as I still grieve the transition of my father. The life lessons Joe learned were noble and universal and the presentation of Black life without the typical tragedies and stereotypes was long overdue, but refreshing. And yet, emotionally, something didn’t feel right in the end for me.

And this has been where the great debate over this film resides.

After I finished the film and sat with this uncomfortable feeling, I was going to turn to my Facebook family to help me out as it’s always a ripe space for nerdy discourse about all things pop culture. But, I paused as I read several glowing, heartfelt testimonials about the film from my cherished Black connections. I genuinely questioned what I was feeling until a friend sent me an article that offered a more critical perspective of the film. With this author’s analysis, I thought perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all.

The big question about Soul is whether or not Tina Fey’s character, 22, is a white woman. She is literally a blue blob waiting to be dispatched to Earth to incarnate in a physical body. The film’s writers even went so far as to have her claim she chose a white woman’s voice and persona because she knew it would be annoying. Hmm. . okay. That felt like a clever manipulation to serve as a pre-emptive strike to both justify and diffuse the character’s identity. And maybe this wouldn’t matter in any other film, but this is a film unapologetically about a Black man and Black life, so it’s unfair in the post-game analysis to ask Black people to suspend the notion that 22 is not white, especially since Tina Fey’s voice has such a prominent presence in the film.

“It is this visual reference point that made Matthew Broderick’s casting as Simba in The Lion King so incongruent to James Earl Jones’s Mufasa and Madge Sinclair’s Sarabi.”

There was a time when animated films did not call on the voice talents of Hollywood’s A-listers. Do any of you know the name of the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Belle from Beauty and the Beast? I would guess that Robin Williams changed the game in his star turn as the Genie in Aladdin and soon, our expectations changed and so did the animated film industry. Now, characters are created to evoke a visual reference for us as viewers.

Maui from Moana simply wouldn’t work if Dwayne Johnson was swapped out for Neil Patrick Harris. Kevin Hart is Snowball in The Secret Life of Pets, it’s undeniable. I know I’m looking at a little white bunny, but my mind sees little Kevin Hart and those faces he makes. It is this visual reference point that made Matthew Broderick’s casting as Simba in The Lion King so incongruent to James Earl Jones’s Mufasa and Madge Sinclair’s Sarabi. To ask viewers to deny Tina Fey’s personification of whiteness as this character is to ask us to do something counter to every other animated feature film we view.

In Soul, Pixar is asking to have it both ways–pat us on the back for this beautifully crafted, non-stereotypical depiction of a Black man, but forget that the character who serves as his antagonist is a white woman. Forget that fact as she not only inhabits his body, but then attempts to steal it. Forget that fact as he exposes her to the everyday beauty and joy that is his life and she expresses more entitlement to it than gratitude. Forget that fact as Joe is the one that must apologize to her, for what I still don’t know, so that she can be redeemed in the end. Nothing was required of her.

*****

A few weeks ago, I penned the post, Ain’t I Still a Woman? in which I expressed my disappointment with The Queen’s Gambit and its stereotypical depiction of a Black girl who ultimately gives her life savings to the white woman protagonist who did nothing to deserve it. She took her cash, bought a bunch of fancy outfits to wear to Russia to play in her tournament, and is seen as the triumphant heroine. Some have called the show a “feminist romp.”

When I write these particular reflections/critiques, I do it against the backdrop of an almost 30-year career facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion work–at least, that’s what we’re calling it now. Over the decades, my perspective on where our focus should be has changed a lot. Having grown up as an upper middle-class Black girl, I was lulled into believing that Black folks, like my family, just needed to work hard to surmount the prevailing perceptions of us as a people. Then, I started to understand the concept of white privilege and that white folks were free from the same negative perceptions simply because their experience and lives were normalized in society.

Now, the most prominent lens I use to understand these issues and challenges is that of the pathology of white supremacy and how it is the air we all breathe. The pathology is defined by the behaviors and mindsets that are birthed out of a false perception of superiority that is reinforced by every societal institution from how clothes are designed to who gets to lead the government. Anyone who benefits from this construct will consciously or unconsciously engage in behaviors to maintain that sense of superiority, even if it requires hypocrisy, dishonesty, theft, or violence and never includes accountability.

Why does this matter to an animated feature film?

For too many Black people, these behaviors have been a persistent source of harm to us. From the board room to a hotel lobby–you’ve seen the latest video of a white woman who literally assaults a Black kid because she insists he stole her phone–the need to hold onto this position of superiority by any means necessary without accountability is dangerous and traumatizing. The inception of Soul was likely years ago before we were assaulted by “Karens”, Trump, and Amy Cooper, but our current context makes the visceral emotional reaction to this film about much more than trying to be “woke.”

So, for many of us who saw this blue blob claim she was embodying the annoying persona of a “white woman” and then proceeded to engage in the behaviors that reinforced that persona and was then redeemed without any accountability, it stopped being funny or even safe. The tenderness and humility with which Joe offered his apology to her just reinforced deep rooted sentiments that govern the way we interact with each other as consumers of this same toxic air.

And while I want to acknowledge that Pixar brought in consultants and a Black man to co-direct the story and character development, he is not Pixar and consulting is not decision-making. Kemp got Joe right, from top to bottom. Soul was brilliant in its Blackity-blackness and that felt completely undermined by the decision to submit this beautifully-flawed Black man to, as my friend put it, “a petulant child.”

*****

“How might it have felt to see such compassion, humility, and love offered to the personification of a Black woman?”

In my opinion, Joe was absolutely right. 22’s discovery about life on Earth was because she was in his shoes. She appropriated the joy and honor and respect that comes with being in his skin and in that way, he redeemed her. An ironic reflection of our real life in the US, in which the contributions of Black people are what often give life and soul to our society. Our music, our vernacular, our style, our flavor, and even our vote.

I took some time to ponder what it would have felt like if 22 was voiced by a Black woman and I imagined that scene where Joe offers his hand and silences the angry, judgmental voices that surround 22. How might it have felt to see such compassion, humility, and love offered to the personification of a Black woman? The idea brought a tear to my eye because that isn’t something we ever really see or feel that often, if at all.

I watched the movie again looking through the eyes of its champions and I kept asking myself if I could separate this white woman persona from this blue blob and it was impossible. I probably oversimplified my first analysis that this was just a roundabout way to save a white woman, but I didn’t feel any better after the second viewing about 22’s resolution and that’s probably due to my own experiences with these pathological dynamics, some still very fresh.

At any rate, the debate about this film is extraordinary and that’s important and so in that regard, well done, Pixar. I still think there is a lot more work to be done in clearing the air that we breathe and letting Black people lead when our stories are told. More importantly, I would hope that white creators, whether animators or otherwise, choose to look through the lens other than the white gaze and consider what redemption should look like from multiple nuanced perspectives. Ironically, that’s the very thing that Joe learned to do.

Image courtesy of Disney Pixar

Ain’t I Still a Woman?

In 1981, bell hooks, renowned author, feminist, professor, and social activist, released her book, Ain’t I a Woman?, quoted above. The title is a nod to a speech given by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in 1851 in which Sojourner makes the case that enslaved Negro women are not regarded as women by men whether they are making the case for or against women’s equal rights.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages,
and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody
ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best
place!”
–Sojourner Truth

130 years later, bell hooks took this idea and expanded on it in the wake of the modern Women’s Rights movement of the Sixties and Seventies in which she critically points out through personal accounts and deeper analysis that the white feminist movement did not regard race as relevant, often leaving Black women left out of the conversation in the fight for equality. It’s a phenomenal read, one that unfortunately, seems to still be relevant so many years later.

Shortly after the death of RBG and the rushed nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, there was buzz to revive the pink pussy hat demonstrations in protest of the nomination. In a Facebook group of which I am a part, a woman posted a caution to white women to be mindful of inclusivity as many women of color did not feel that the pink pussy hat was representative of their participation.

Now, there is some debate about what part of our anatomy we are referring to with the hat–vagina? vulva? I thought the hat was a symbol of protest to Trump’s ascension to the presidency because of his declaration that he, in fact, grabs women by the pussy. That being the case, I can assure you that on a Black or brown woman, nothing that he would be able to see and grab down there is pink.

One respondent to the post, while claiming she didn’t care what color the hats were, felt that we should not be distracted by “small battles” between us. I felt compelled to point out that Black women’s fight for inclusivity is no small battle. Sojourner Truth took up the mantle 170 years ago! Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging that it was a mistake to belittle such an important issue, the respondent stuck to the fragility playbook. First, she accused me of suggesting that we don’t protest at all which I did not do. Then, she said that snotty words were being used. No idea what that was about. Yet, there was zero acknowledgement that her calling the fight for inclusivity a “small battle” was problematic.

I just sighed and kept it moving.

*****

And that’s usually what we do, sigh and move on. Believe me when I say that most Black folks are trying to live life with some semblance of joy and satisfaction. We know racial bias is out there, but it would be debilitating to one’s sanity to expect it with every interaction. So when it shows up, sometimes all we can do to preserve our peace is to sigh, keep it moving, and search for the next moment of joy.

My own pivot was to turn my sights towards The Queen’s Gambit, a new Netflix show about which everyone was raving. I generally trust my peeps and their entertainment choices so I was all in. I nestled into my bed with my computer poised for the long haul and the cat snoozing at my feet. As the opening minutes rolled out on the screen, I was intrigued and even sympathetic to the little girl whose life had changed so tragically with the death of her mother. Vulnerable and alone, Beth, our protagonist, was swallowed up by the high walls, stern wooden staircases, and towering adults welcoming her into the orphanage.

“Meanwhile, Black women are out here saving the Republic, one vote at a time, and still forced to see ourselves in the same old tropes.”

Drawn into this tiny child’s plight, I was jarred to attention by the voice in the distance. We, the viewers, are assaulted by a stream of obscenities and screams from a character hidden among the rooms and corridors of the orphanage. To my ear, the voice was adult-like, spewing words like “cocksucker”. The shocked curiosity on Beth’s face was matched by the frustrated glance between the headmistress and the orderly as in unison, they utter the name of the culprit, Jolene.

In true storytelling form, the screenwriter and director had done their job. They signaled to us that eventually we would meet this mystery troublemaker, Jolene, and she would likely serve as a contrast to Beth, our innocent, strawberry-blond heroine whose face graces all of the series’ promotional materials. Another signal as to for whose gaze this content was made.

As the minutes ticked by, I had forgotten all about Jolene, distracted by Beth’s slow, detailed orientation into her new home. The headmistress’s subdued sense of control suggested a sinister nature that had yet to be unveiled. And then we meet Jolene, a sassy Black girl who is revealed as the resident expert on the good drugs. Everything in me sunk as I was face-to-face with the age-old archetype of a Black female character. Jolene had already made her debut off-screen. She was loud, aggressive, hypersexual. Perhaps I let my guard down, but I really did not expect that this offering in 2020 would present this lazy, unimaginative, and played-out characterization of a Black girl.

I tried to push through, to sigh and keep it moving but I couldn’t continue my viewing. I was hurt so I turned it off and took to Facebook to express my dismay. Most felt my frustration, others felt a bit of shame that they had been numb to what I had noticed. My fourth grade teacher–yes, my fourth-grade teacher found me on Facebook–said she understood my feelings, but wishes that I had watched it through to the end.

Hmm, the end. Spoiler alert. You mean when an adult Jolene magically reappears after being absent for all of the episodes since the beginning, declares she’s a paralegal having an affair with a white lawyer at her law firm and decides to give her life savings to Beth for her to play in a chess tournament? The end–where I get to see this lone Black female character portrayed as a Jezebel and a Mammy in one shot? I passed. My friend, Kate, offered the most interesting critique when she said that Jolene gave Beth her life savings and she did nothing to even deserve it. Mind. Blown.

This is how white feminism continues to fail Black women. We’re supposed to sit through our discomfort for the cause of elevating white women’s presence and power in the world. Now, there’s all this talk about girls having a renewed interest in chess. People far and wide are heaping praise on this miniseries for its “legacy.” Are you kidding me? In this day and age, white mothers would never let their daughters tolerate being portrayed as nothing less than empowered and strong. Your girls are superheroes now, saving themselves and each other. Meanwhile, Black women are out here saving the Republic, one vote at a time, and still forced to see ourselves in the same old tropes.

*****

Back in October, Trevor Noah interviewed Chris Rock about a few key issues, including the BLM movement. I highly recommend watching this interview. In it, Chris poses the question, “What is the ask?” He’s down with the movement, but he believes that Black folks need to have clarity and think big about what are we really asking for from White America.? Asking cops not to murder us does seem like a pretty low bar.

“The pats on the back to Black folks who use their voices and stand up simply are not enough because this is not our work to do. You are not the allies. You own the frontlines.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the glaring disparities in healthcare, economics, education, etc. have been laid bare before us, making a compelling case for reparations. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones details a comprehensive argument in The New York Times article, What Is Owed, articulating the vast array of opportunities and assets that have been systematically denied the very people who built this country. The facts are simple–the collective wealth and power of the United States is a direct result of four hundred years of free slave labor. While individual prosperity can be attributed to a long-standing system of advantages from policies intended to exclude and discriminate.

But, the repair that must be made does not just involve these larger issues, like obliterating police brutality or creating pathways to building generational wealth. The fight against the mindset and behaviors that come with the scourge of white supremacy is a daily discipline that usually requires white people to step into discomfort again and again. The pats on the back to Black folks who use their voices and stand up simply are not enough because this is not our work to do. You are not the allies. You own the frontlines.

I don’t begrudge anyone who watched The Queen’s Gambit beginning to end. Locked in, we’re all in search of really good storytelling. But, imagine how powerful it would be if those same women who are raving about this movie would flood the film’s social media platforms with words about the representation of this Black character in equal measure? If you accept whatever is given to you to validate your white gaze, then you are not making repairs, you are complicit in doing more damage.

We often hear the complaint that Black people make everything about race. Most things are about race, but not in the way people might think. When a society is constructed on the unjustified elevation of a race and establishes its institutions and power structures on this premise, to challenge that society is to fine tune one’s awareness to every facet of that premise–media, language, behavior, relationships–everything. So, if you are truly invested in righting the many wrongs resulting from this construct, you are committing to the nonstop work that it requires.

And that is the ask.

Top image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com

To learn more about bell hooks, see this article penned in 2019 by Min Jin Lee about the impact of her legacy.

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